So, you’ve decided to go Christmas caroling this year, but you’re not sure where to start. Maybe you’re a little nervous about the very thought. Sing? A cappella? Who does that anymore? Just choir people and Dickens street performers, right?
Wrong. You, too, can sing a cappella. Better yet, you can spread a little holiday cheer while doing so.
Traditional carols are old enough that they are in the public domain, which means it’s easy to find free, downloadable sheet music on the web. Below is a list of some familiar carols with links to PDFs for printing.
Also included for each carol is a recommended starting note, as one of the keys to successful singing is not starting too low or too high. A pitch pipe or a smartphone with an app that plays a pitch for you can help.
1. No Christmas carol list would be complete without “Silent Night.” According to legend, it was composed by Franz Gruber and Jacob Mohr in 1818 to be easily accompanied by guitar because the organ at their church in Obendorf, Austria, was broken. For an extra challenge, consider learning it in the original German. (Start “Silent Night” on an E.)
2. “What Child Is This” is sung to the folk tune “GREENSLEEVES.” (Note: hymn tunes have their own names, separate from the words that are sung to them. The names of hymn tunes are typically written in all capital letters.)
Most people sing “What Child Is This” too slow, making it necessary to leave out notes in order to get a breath. To avoid that problem, sing it fast enough to get through an entire line of music (“What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”) on one breath. Add some percussion for an authentic medieval flavor. (Start “What Child Is This” on an E.)
3, 4. Both “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child” and “Good King Wenceslas” can be sung to the same tune, “TEMPUS ADEST FLORIDUM.” Here’s a YouTube link for listening to the tune if you aren’t familiar with it. (Start “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child” and “Good King Wenceslas” on an F.)
5. Everyone knows “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” An easy variation for singing is to have soloists or groups take turns with each repetition of “O come, let us adore Him” at the end of each stanza.
For example, have a female or child soloist sing the first repetition, add the rest of the high voices on the second, and have the men join in on the third repetition, including the words “Christ the Lord!” (Start “O Come, All Ye Faithful” on an F.)
6. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is another Christmas staple. The tune “MENDELSSOHN” comes from Mendelssohn’s cantata Festgesang an die Künstler, composed to mark the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. (Start “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” on a low C.)
7. “Away in a Manger” can be sung to either “AWAY IN A MANGER” or “CRADLE SONG.” Here’s the first tune, and here’s the second one. (Start “AWAY IN A MANGER” on a high C. Start “CRADLE SONG” on a low C.)
8. Similarly, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” can be sung to either the tune “ST. LOUIS” or “FOREST GREEN.” This link includes both tunes. (Start “ST. LOUIS” on an A. Start “FOREST GREEN” on a low C.)
9. “As with Gladness Men of Old” reflects on the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, praying for the same spirit to seek out Jesus that the wise men had. Here’s the tune played on organ. (Start “As with Gladness” on an F.)
10. “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” is a traditional Polish carol that was first translated into English in 1920. Hear the tune here. (Start “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” on a low C.)
11. If you want to try a little harmony, nothing beats the French carol “Angels We Have Heard on High.” You don’t have to sing in four parts to impress your listeners; two parts will do. On “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” have the high voices––both men and women––sing the soprano part, and have the low voices, both men and women, sing the alto part. This YouTube page includes links to audio files for help learning each part. (Start “Angels We Have Heard on High” on an A.)
Notice that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and other modern Christmas songs are not on this list. That’s because they aren’t carols. Carols trace their roots to medieval musical forms as well as to the tradition of wassailing. The practice of visiting people to sing carols for them grows to some extent out of both historic backgrounds but didn’t take shape in the custom we know as Christmas caroling until the Victorian era.
If the carol you want to sing isn’t on the list above, do an internet search for a PDF of the title. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of searching, printing, and stapling your own songbooks, consider purchasing songbooks for your caroling group. Just make sure you buy one with both words and music. Here’s an inexpensive option.
Happy caroling, and merry Christmas!